THE SABBATH LAW
THE FOURTH COMMANDMENT, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy’ is more remarkable in some respects than of the others with which it is associated. It is more artificial, if we can apply such a term to any appointment of God. To worship God, to abstain from hurting man, are ideas that the unaided human mind might work out, and has worked out in a dim way from a contemplation of the constitution of things as they are; but to suspend all ordinary occupations once in seven days is foreign to all human impressions of what is expedient: to mere human thought, it seems such a waste of time. There is a self-evident stamp of divinity in such an arrangement. As a matter of fact, the Sabbath law has not occurred to any race or nation. It belongs to Israel alone. It was one of the characteristic ingredients in Zion’s affliction that the adversaries “mocked at her Sabbaths” (Lam. 1:7). The Sabbath observance, wherever found, is traceable to the Mosaic code. It is peculiarly and exclusively a Bible institution.
Experimentally, it is found to be a beneficial institution—this weekly recurrence of the rest for man and beast. It seems adapted to a need of nature; it allows the machinery of life to work longer and more easily than if kept uninterruptedly at work. In this sense it is scarcely to be described as “artificial”. Its tendency to recuperate the physical forces after the exhaustions of labour, and to give the mind an opportunity of rising into higher exercises than are possible in the ceaseless activities required in the provision of daily bread, has struck all thoughtful minds as a feature of excellence not to be exaggerated. More blessed is the British nation in its partial conformity to this law than her Continental neighbours, with whom the Sabbath is more a day of pleasure and public ceremonial. Blessed will the whole world be when the Sabbath becomes a universal institution of human life, under the law that will go forth from Mount Zion to willing and obedient nations (Isa. 66:23; 2:3).
That it was ordained with a purpose over and above the mere comfort and physical well-being of man, is manifest from the divine comments to be found in the law and the prophets. These speak of the Sabbath as a “sign” intended to keep God before the mind of Israel. Thus in Exod. 31:13, 17, we read, “My Sabbaths ye shall keep; for it is a sign between me and you… that ye may know that I am the Lord that doth sanctify you. Ye shall keep the Sabbath therefore; for it is holy unto you; every one that defileth it shall surely be put to death”. Again, by Ezekiel, 800 years afterwards, God says, “I gave them also my sabbaths … And I said… Hallow my sabbaths, and they shall be a sign between me and you, that ye may know that I am the Lord your God” (Ezek. 20:12, 20). From this it follows that the mere suspension of labour was not a complete keeping of the Sabbath. Acceptable keeping of the Sabbath involved the exercise of mental discernment in relation to God. It required the mind to be fixed on Him in a special manner, as expressed in the message by Isaiah, “If thou turn away thy foot from the sabbath, from doing thy pleasure on my holy day; and call the sabbath a delight, the holy of the Lord, honourable; and shalt honour him, not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking thine own words: then shalt thou delight thyself in the Lord; and I will cause thee to ride upon the high places of the earth” (Isa. 58:13). The reverse attitude is deprecated in those who said, “Behold, what a weariness is it! … . When will the Sabbath be gone that we may set forth wheat, making the ephah small, and the shekel great, and falsifying the balances by deceit? The Lord hath sworn by the excellency of Jacob, Surely I will never forget any of their works. Shall not the land tremble for this?” (Mal. 1:13; Amos 8:5). Even the eunuchs were commended who” keep my sabbaths, and choose the things that please me, and take hold of my covenant” (Isa. 56:4). Nothing better could be conceived—nothing more suited to man’s spiritual requirements—than this compulsory suspension of secular activity once in seven days, and this overt concentration of the mind, in a special manner, on the Creator who in all natural life is out of sight, and therefore liable to drop out of mind.
It was not at Sinai an entirely new feature of the will of God, though formally incorporated for the first time in a national constitution. In this respect it stood in the same position as the command to worship and the interdict against murder and theft, which were all features of the divine” way” among men before their promulgation from Sinai. The very form of its enactment shows it was not new: “Remember the Sabbath day”. This implies that it had been previously recognized, which was the fact, though not quite in the stringent form required by the law. We find it taken into account before Israel had got so far as Sinai, namely, when the manna was given: it was said to them that on the sixth day, they should gather double quantity, and on the seventh day none, because it was “the rest of the holy sabbath unto the Lord” (Exod. 16:22–26). How came the Sabbath to be arranged for before the Sabbath law was given from Sinai ? Evidently, because, like sacrifice, it had been an element in the divine system among men since the day that God at the beginning “rested from all his work which he had created and made; and blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it” (Gen. 2:2, 3). To this historical origin, indeed, the very command of Sinai ascribes it: “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the seventh day, and hallowed it”
Here our faith is rudely challenged by the science of the age, and it is not well that we ignore the challenge. The unanswered challenge of any kind of truth is liable to prove an unstopped leak in the ship through which the waters gradually encroach, however dry and comfortable things may seem on deck. The challenges can all be answered, provided you go deeply enough into them. The challenge in this case relates to the allegation that “in six days the Lord made heaven and earth”, and that the stupendous work was done about 6,000 years ago. Science presses upon our attention the fact that the earth contains evidence of having existed many ages—six thousand years many times over; and that the geologically-indicated phases of its development from the stage to stage point to millenniums of years for each stage rather than single days. The argument founded upon these facts is that a system of things cannot be divine which, like the Mosaic system, contradicts so flatly the manifest truth of nature.
There is cogency in the argument, and it must be met. If the facts were wholly as alleged, it would be impossible to meet it. But they are not so. The Bible does not tell us when the earth was brought into being. It tells us that it was made “in the beginning”, but this is not a fixing date. It is only telling there was a beginning, which is self-evident however far back it may be put. The “beginning” and the beginning of the six days are not identical. The six days’ work was undoubtedly 6,000 years ago, and the six days’ work included the making of the earth in the sense in which a country is made when established and developed, but it did not include the making of it in the sense of bringing it into existence for the first time. The evidence proves this. It shows the earth existent “without form and void, and darkness on the face of the deep” at the beginning of the work (Gen. 1:2). It is impossible to lay too much stress upon the casual glimpse which these words afford us of the pre-Adamite condition of the earth. It is but a sentence, and yet it is a whole revelation on the point. It is like a rent in the back-wall of the human era, through which we peer backwards into a long vista of darkness, whose length cannot be measured; and if science says there were millions of years in it, we say, as believers in the Bible, “Very well, the Bible allows for it in its opening sentence.”
The six days’ work relates only to the process by which, from the earth point of view (for the story is written for the inhabitants of the earth), the earth was brought from the condition in which that work found it. For reasons not disclosed, the earth had been submerged in water, and enveloped in darkness, which is the state in which it is first introduced to view. It had evidently been a long time in that state—with which the geological indications agree. How long is not revealed, either by the Bible or science. The moment arrived when, to Divine Wisdom, it seemed meet and proper to break into this state of things, and bring the earth into a habitable state.
Though God did the work, the work was committed into the hands of the angels, “who excel in strength and do his commandments, hearkening to the voice of his word”. This is proved by the inspired rendering of the Hebrew Elohim (the word for God in Gen. 1) into the Greek αγγελοι, the word for angels in the New Testament (compare Psa. 97:7 with Heb. 1:6); also by the consultation among the creative operators: “The man is become as one of us to know good and evil” (Gen. 3:22). The fact also explains to us the otherwise unintelligible idea of “God (Elohim) resting and being refreshed” after the six days’ work (Gen. 2:1). It is a fact that does not clash with the One Creator’s relation to the matter.
Though angels were the operators, the eternal Yah was the power working through them; and therefore the verb created is in the singular, though the noun Elohim is plural. The Eternal Spirit working by the angels is the key-thought in the case—the Conception that meets all the requirements, and solves all the apparent difficulties. It is a conception constantly illustrated in the events of Israel’s history, as in the appearance of the angel in the bush to Moses, “The God of Abraham” (Exod. 3:2, 6), and the description of God in Sinai as “the angel” (Acts 7:38, 53), and the law as “the word spoken by angels” (Heb 2:2).
The six days’ work began with the arrival of the angels upon the scene. The scene was one of total darkness—not clear darkness, but Egyptian darkness—darkness that might be felt—dark-ness caused by the prevalence of vapour impenetrable, which, as yet uncondensed atmosphere, had no power of segregating into cloud and aqueous deposit. It was the state described in Job 38:9, “I made the cloud the garment thereof, and thick darkness the swaddling band for it”. “Let there be light”, said the Creative Power, in its angelic instruments, and instantly the darkness was irradiated before a way had been opened for the sun’s bright rays. When men visit some underground darkness in which light is desirable, they strike a match and light a lamp. The angels have facilities in this respect of which we know nothing. They can evoke light from the common elements around them, by the exercise of volition. They can cause their own bodies to glow with electric brightness, of which their Bible history furnishes many illustrations. It was no difficulty for them to cause light before the sun—which seems such a staggerer to some of our wise critics. They (the angels) have many ways of operating. Perhaps they so rarefied the cloud-fog that overspread the earth as to allow a dim diffusion of sunlight such as we have on a dull day, and so caused night and day to be incipiently apparent, “for the evening and the morning were the first day”. Whichever way they did it, they could do it, and they did it, and performed a great feat of power which was enough for one day. On the second day, they acted on the atmosphere so that the lighter aqueous vapours floated in clouds and the heavier elements were precipitated as water thus establishing a firmament which “divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament”. This also was an operation involving an inconceivable expenditure of power, when the immense mass of the atmosphere acted on is considered. Next day, the ground at the bottom of the wide waste of waters covering the earth was so upheaved by the same power brought to bear as to project portions of it above the water, and cause the gathering of the displaced waters into the hollows so formed, in fulfilment of the fiat: “Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear”. The formation of grass, herb, and tree on the upheaved land was the next development in natural order. And now the situation called for the cheering and invigorating beams of the sun. So the fiat went forth, “Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven”. To an ordinary spectator, there was no sun, moon, and stars at this stage. There was only a sombre, leaden, light-diffused sky, such as we often see. It would seem, therefore, to such an observer, when the fiat had taken effect in rendering the atmosphere completely transparent that the sun, moon, and stars were “made” for the first time. But as with the earth itself, so with these bodies; they existed before, but were only now made apparent for the first time. For all practical purposes, to an inhabitant of the earth for whom this record was written, they were “made”on the fourth day: actually they were “made (to appear)”. The other days need not engage our attention. When the six days were ended, the earth had been transformed from a dark and lifeless prison house to a beautiful and well-furnished habitation of life and light. “On the seventh day, God ended his work which he had made”
Dr. Thomas has the following trenchant remarks which we reproduce from Elpis Israel, because of the great importance of a correct understanding of the matter in this day of scientific opposition to the Bible:
“Let the reader peruse the history of the creation as a revelation to himself as an inhabitant of the earth. It informs him of the order in which the things narrated would have developed themselves to his view had he been placed on some projecting rock, the spectator of the events detailed. He must remember this. The Mosaic account in not a revelation to the inhabitants of other orbs remote from the earth, of the formation of the boundless universe: but to man, as a constituent of the terrestrial system. This will explain why light is said to have been created four days before the sun, moon, and stars. To an observer on the earth, this was the order of their appearance; and in relation to him a primary creation, though absolutely pre-existent for millions of ages before the Adamic era.
“The duration of the earth’s revolutions round the sun previous to the work of the first day is not revealed; but the evidence produced by the strata of our globe shows that the period was long continued … .
“Fragments, however, of the wreck of this pre-Adamic world have been brought to light by geological research, to the records of which we refer the reader for a detailed account of its discoveries, with this remark, that its organic remains, coal fields and strata, belong to the ages before the formation of man rather than to the era of the creation or the Noachic flood. This view of the matter will remove a host of difficulties which have hitherto disturbed the harmony between the conclusions of geologists and the Mosaic account of the physical constitution of our globe.
“Geologists have endeavoured to extend the six days into six thousand years. But this with the Scriptural data we have adduced is quite unnecessary. Instead of six thousand they can avail themselves of sixty thousand; for the Scriptures reveal no length of time during which the terrene angels dwelt upon our globe. The six days of Genesis were unquestionably six diurnal revolutions of the earth upon its axis. This is clear from the tenor of the Sabbath law. Six days shalt thou labour (O Israel) and do all thy work: but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord thy God; in it thou shalt not do any work, for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it.’ Would it be any fit reason that, because the Lord worked six periods of a thousand or more years each, and had ceased about two thousand until the giving of the law, therefore the Israelites were to work six periods of twelve hours, and do no work on a seventh period or day of like duration ? Would any Israelite or Gentile, unspoiled by vain philosophy, come to the conclusion of the geologists by reading the Sabbath law? We believe not. Six days of ordinary length were ample time for Omnipotence with all the power of the universe at command to reform the earth, and to place the few animals upon it necessary for the beginning of a new order of things upon the globe.” So far Dr. Thomas.
To those who are not anxious to have the Bible vindicated, this explanation will seem strained and unnatural. It has to be observed in reply that every form of apparently discrepant truth has some time or other to appear in this unfavourable light. The explanations of some of the most familiar phenomena of nature, such as the enlargement of the moon at harvest time, the variation of the tides, the equinoctial gales, etc., appear far-fetched and improbable to those who are not acquainted with astronomical science, and are flatly scouted by those who reject the Newtonian system. The explanations of damaging evidence in a true case often appear lame to those who are not in touch with all the facts. The reasonable and necessary rule in all cases is to govern the doubtful and the unknown by that which is known and certain. The application of this rule to the case in hand compels the adoption of some such understanding as has been advanced, of “the reason annexed to the fourth commandment”. Either the Lord in some sense made heaven and earth in six days, or the Bible is a human and fabulous writing. It is impossible that the intellect can receive the second of these alternatives when all the facts in the case are fully marshalled. With Christ at our right hand, we are bound to come to Genesis with the conviction that it is true, and that its statements must therefore be capable of harmonization with all other truth. If the process of harmonization should seem forced, it is only an appearance inseparable from the peculiar position of the facts. That the process can be accomplished at all is a sufficient satisfaction of the demands of reason, though reason might have preferred that there should be no need for the process.
We have therefore, to accept, without reserve, the statement of the Fourth Commandment that the Sabbath primarily originated in the extraordinary fact that “in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed” (Exod. 31:17). The idea of the “refreshment” of Deity has given the scoffer a theme of jest. There is no cause for jest at all when the matter is understood in the light of the facts hinted at a little way back. The angels, as the instruments and users of the energy employed in the work, are not to be thought of as inexhaustible Deity. Their power, though inconceivably higher than human, must be subject to a limitation unknown to “the Creator of the ends of the earth, who fainteth not, neither is weary”. It is not, therefore, an inconceivable or anomalous idea that after the stupendous power put forth in the re-organization of this sublunary creation in six days, the Elohim should have welcomed the suspension of creative work on the seventh day, as affording an opportunity of replenishing spent energy by re-absorption from the Eternal Fountain. This, at all events, is the Scripturally alleged occasion of the appointment of the seventh day of the week as a Sabbath of rest. “And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it: because that in it he had rested from all his work which God created and made.”
It is as if God said, “I (in the sense defined) rested on the seventh day: you rest”. Man’s work during the six days of the week is nothing to the work performed during the six days of creative work; but in relation to the strength of man, it is as great as the six days’ creative work in relation to the strength of the angels. There is, therefore, a fitness in ordaining the Sabbath law on such a ground. There were other reasons, however, as we have seen. One of these reasons had special reference to Israel in the day of the Sabbath enactment at Sinai. It is not mentioned in the original promulgation of the Ten Commandments; but it was added forty years afterwards, apparently as a commentary by Moses, in whom the spirit of God was, on the occasion of his grand rehearsal of the Exodus incidents, on the plains of Moab, at the end of their forty years’ wandering in the wilderness: “Remember that thou wast a servant in the land of Egypt, and that the Lord thy God brought thee out thence through a mighty hand and by a streched out arm: therefore the Lord thy God commanded thee to keep the Sabbath day” (Deut. 5:15). The Sabbath was to be a continual memorial to Israel of their miraculous deliverance from Egypt.